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Sen. Chris Murphy, who has made a name for himself lately in the field of foreign policy, has stumbled onto a good domestic policy idea —  sort of.

Actually, Murphy has been pushing the idea for some time. He proposed increasing the federal gasoline tax last year, along with Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, to shore up the federal highway trust fund and address critical infrastructure needs.

Before we even get to the mechanics of the proposed tax increase, let’s look at whether additional funding for infrastructure is needed. On that question, there can be no dispute. Indeed, one need look no further than a devastating 60 Minutes piece broadcast last November.

All you have to do is look around. Here in Connecticut —  whose roads by the way have been rated the worst in the nation in a recent White House report —  potholes, rusted bridges and decrepit rail infrastructure are the order of the day.

The report found that 41 percent of Connecticut’s roads are in poor condition and that 35 percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The latter statistic ties us for sixth worst with rural coal-mining backwater West Virginia. A report two years ago by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that 73 percent of Connecticut’s roads could be classified as poor or mediocre.

On the national level, the 60 Minutes report noted that nearly 70,000 bridges in America — one out of every nine — is now considered to be structurally deficient. If this madness continues, the deadly collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 could turn out to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Now we come to the merits of increasing the gasoline tax itself, which has traditionally been the primary source of money for the federal highway transportation fund, which then doles out money to the states to fix roads, bridges, and other critical infrastructure. That fund, Murphy says, “will begin to run dry in July, likely halting the construction of any new transportation projects without action from Congress.”

First of all, I do not favor increasing the state gas tax. It’s already among the highest in the nation. And the state tax structure — which includes the aptly named Gross Receipts Tax that is otherwise known as the “hidden tax” — is imposed on most petroleum products at the wholesale level and then passed on to retailers, who of course pass it on to you and me at the bottom of the food chain.

Murphy’s proposal would raise the federal gas tax by 12 cents over two years. That’s about what it would be in real dollars since the last time the tax was increased in 1993. And as vehicles have become more fuel-efficient, revenue from the tax has decreased as needs have soared.

Where Murphy and I part ways is his insistence that the tax be indexed to inflation. Murphy is no coward, but he using a tactic often employed by craven politicians who want to raise taxes regularly but don’t want to have to vote for it regularly. I have no problem with raising the gas tax from time to time, but if elected officials want to do so, then they should have the guts to vote for it. Otherwise, when their constituents complain about a gas tax rise, legislators can just shrug and say, “There’s nothing I could do about it. It’s automatic.” Taxpayers in Massachusetts got wise to that last year, when they voted 53-47 percent to repeal automatic gas tax increases passed by lawmakers on Beacon Hill. 

Four years ago, I spent two weeks in South Korea. Among many other differences, I noticed immediately how the trains, roads, bridges, and tunnels were in far superior shape to anything I’d seen in the United States. And it should come as no surprise. As 60 Minutes reported, our public spending on infrastructure is at its lowest level since 1947. And the U.S., which used to have the finest infrastructure in the world, is now ranked 16th, according to the World Economic Forum.

You’d expect the labor unions to embrace the idea of higher spending on infrastructure. But even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and major corporations like Caterpillar and GE have acknowledged that poor infrastructure harms our global competitiveness. So increasing the gas tax and putting people to work might even help our economy.

Things have gotten so bad that I even agree with AFL-CIO union boss Richard Trumpka, who said, “If business and labor can come before you united on this issue —  and we are united on this issue despite our sharp disagreements on a variety of other matters —  I think that should tell everybody something and tell it very loudly.”

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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